The next year will bring tremendous opportunities for making progress in federal affordable housing policy, but only if housing advocates come up with good ideas to modernize current programs and convince the next president to install a capable reformer as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
That was the message from former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson and Sen. Paul Sarbanes at AHF Live: The Tax Credit Developers’ Summit, which was held here at the Hyatt Regency Oct. 24-26.
The two plenary session speakers gave a bipartisan overview of the political outlook for affordable housing, emphasizing the need for advocates to move quickly during the current presidential election campaign to shine a spotlight on housing issues.
Federal health-care programs serve a continuum of needs, including people of all incomes and all ages, said Johnson. “Housing needs to be part of a supportive service network people carry with them throughout their lives to have a modicum of security. If the industry does not get this, housing will become a backwater issue.”
She said she was pleased that Congress is now taking interest in housing but disappointed it is “reinventing the wheel” by creating new programs instead of using existing delivery systems. She was referring to the passage by the House of a bill to create a National Housing Trust Fund.
“We have an opportunity here for streamlining and integrating programs,” she added, calling for the trust fund money to be delivered though an existing program rather than a new one.
Sarbanes said the industry must address the problems at HUD, which he called “dysfunctional.” ”If we can get a highly competent head of HUD, I think we can get the agency back to doing its job,” he said.
He called on the audience to make an effort to educate members of Congress. “Show them projects, show them happy families in decent housing. Show how their whole lives change and transform,” Sarbanes said. “Tell Congress to give it a higher priority.”
Johnson said she got involved in supporting the housing tax credit because “someone took me to a project,” and called on developers to invite their representatives to visit their projects.
Johnson called on the industry to acknowledge problems with the tax credit program and be proactive about suggesting ways to fix them. For example, she said that some critics were justifiably concerned that tax credits were being used to build assisted housing where the private market was already providing low-rent housing.
One of the problems with HUD in the eyes of Congress is that is deeply associated with failed public housing. Johnson said some members of Congress were also disappointed by the housing voucher program. “Vouchers were hopeful, but the original idea that people’s salaries would go up and we would get the voucher back has failed. To help new people, we must add more money. How much money can you keeping adding?”
After losing the 2006 election in her Connecticut district, Johnson, a Republican, became a member of the Federal Public Policy Group at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C.
Johnson was first elected in 1982 and was a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. She most recently chaired the Health Subcommittee, making her the first woman to chair a House Ways and Means subcommittee. She was a staunch advocate for the low-income housing tax credit while in Congress.
Before he retired from the Senate in 2006, Sarbanes had been a strong advocate of affordable housing programs and chaired the Senate Banking committee for a short period early this decade. He is a Democrat from Maryland.